Johannes Gutenberg - childhood
Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz almost exactly 600 years ago. His original name was Henne Gensfleisch zur Laden, people at the time being named after the property they and their families owned. Much of Gutenberg’s life remains a mystery, as few written documents exist which could give us information. Gutenberg’s father, Friele Gensfleisch, was a patrician from Mainz while his mother, Else Wirich, came from a family of merchants. Gutenberg’s date of birth is estimated at being between 1394 and 1404; traditionally, the turn of the century, 1400, is celebrated as the year of his birth. We do not know how Gutenberg spent his childhood and youth, nor what kind of schooling he received.
As the son of a patrician he probably went to a grammar school and possibly studied, for the occupations he later pursued demanded a comprehensive education and above all a sound knowledge of Latin.
Johannes Gutenberg - The Strasbourg Years
We know that Gutenberg was in Strasbourg in 1434. At the time Strasbourg was a bustling centre of trade three times the size of Mainz which promised reward for anyone with a mind for business. At this stage in his life Gutenberg was in possession of a handsome sum of money he had inherited from his mother, who died in 1433. Armed with this substantial capital he settled in the Strasbourg suburb of St. Arbogast and came up with an idea he thought would prove profitable; as part of a “manufacturing co-operative” he aimed to mass-produce holy mirrors for pilgrims on their way to Aachen. These religious souvenirs were made from a tin alloy which was melted and poured into casts. The mirror project shows that Gutenberg was not only an inventor but also an entrepreneur.
What happened in Strasbourg
From autumn 1438 onwards, or possibly earlier, Gutenberg started work on another project which he insisted his partners keep a secret. We only have fragments of information about this new enterprise which are confusing and ambiguous.
The documents we do have refer to a press, to formes, tools and lead, among other things. It is feasible that Gutenberg “invented” printing in Strasbourg using a printing press and moveable type – or at least came very close to doing so. The question remains as to how far his invention progressed at this stage. There are no books or prints available to us from this period.
Sources last mention Gutenberg as being in Strasbourg in 1444 and place him back in Mainz in 1448. Only recently it was proved that he stayed in Frankfurt on the Main inbetween.
Johannes Gutenberg - The Law Suit & the last years
While Gutenberg was printing his Bible, he quarrelled with his creditor, Johannes Fust, who had twice lent him 800 guilders for his ambitious project. The disputing parties went to court.
For reasons unknown to us, Gutenberg lost his case. He had to hand his Bible workshop over to Fust, and possibly also the Bibles he had already printed. Fust continued to run the workshop with one of Gutenberg’s printers, Peter Schöffer. Their officina, the old Latin name for a print workshop, went on to produce the Mainz Psalter, which can be seen in its second edition from 1459.
the last years
Gutenberg died in February 1468 in his native Mainz, but not before he, like many of his fellow citizens, had been driven from the city in 1462. Before he died he was made a courtier by Prince-Bishop Adolf von Nassau, meaning he was able to spend the last years of his life in relative comfort. He printed a number of minor works prior to his death, presumably in Eltville and Mainz, and possibly worked with other printing workshops, either as a printer or a consultant.